It’s important to say, before we get into the events of Tuesday morning, that Simone Biles was failed by her country and its entire gymnastics infrastructure for 18 years while a loathsome predator named Larry Nasser sexually abused her and hundreds of other athletes—some as young as six years old—in his role as team physician. That’s the unforgivable crime that underlies anything we say about U.S. women’s gymnastics from now until anyone he affected is no longer alive. It drove Biles to depression and suicidal thoughts, and when you see someone spout an opinion like “Simone Biles just let her country down,” a nice, snappy reply is, “good, she’s returning the favor.”
Of course, nothing is that simple. On Tuesday morning, in the women’s gymnastics team final, Simone Biles executed a poor vault and then dropped out of the event for mental reasons. Without her, the U.S. went from heavy gold medal favorites to underdogs, and her team couldn’t compete with the Russian Olympic Committee, who took gold and broke America’s stranglehold on the sport. As far as silver medals go, it’s a tough one to stomach, and though it feels strange to call finishing second in the world a profound disappointment, in this particular situation it’s also the truth.
Hours later, we’re still gathering information on what exactly happened to Biles. All we have is a short video of her telling her coach she can’t go on, a few quotes from her press conference, and some words from a post-event press huddle.
Considering everything that she’s been through, from the Nasser situation to the sheer amount of pressure on her shoulders as the world’s greatest gymnast and the top draw, by far, of these Olympic games, it would be particularly unsympathetic to be mad at her, or to imply that she owed anybody anything. It also centers the experience of the viewer, the fan, at the expense of the person who actually worked to be there, in Tokyo, with a chance to compete. As a friend put it this morning, “there is an inherent narcissism to the types of criticisms Biles is receiving here, as if the armchair commentator wanted the gold / result more than Biles did.” Which is, of course, ridiculous. This is the climax of her competitive life, and for her to take the extreme step of quitting mid-event, the stress had to be overwhelming. What’s odd is the temptation to believe that it wasn’t.
But let’s also be honest about that armchair commentator, and here I include myself: If you’ve ever competed in a sport, there will likely—not definitely, but likely—be a part of you that sees this play out and thinks, “how could she do that? How could she let her team down, when they’ve worked so hard to put themselves in a position to win gold, because she felt some nerves?” And it’s impossible not to wonder how those teammates feel, too, and how they’re going to feel when she comes back to compete in the individual events, if indeed she does.
I’m not arguing that this is a “good” opinion, just an inevitable one. It lacks sensitivity, to some degree it lacks empathy, and it definitely lacks a thorough understanding of the larger context of Biles’ life and how it intertwines with the very recent, very shameful past of U.S. gymnastics. But it’s probably a common enough opinion, already (browse Twitter at your own peril, as always), that it’s something that should be dealt with rather than raged at—even if it’s very rage-worthy when viewed in a certain light, because it implies a kind of competitive weakness in Biles.
What’s the response to that thought? We don’t in fact know the answer to what went on in her head, and it’s possible that we never will, so the simple rejoinder to “how could she do that?” is just, “we don’t know, so be empathetic.” In other words, take the good faith approach of assuming it was really bad, and act accordingly. And you can take comfort in knowing it’s the logical approach too, because we already know from years of history that Biles is not competitively weak, and there’s no chance she would have quit unless something truly staggering hit her on Tuesday. Finally, acknowledge that regardless of your own athletic history, you cannot possibly relate to the singular pressure facing Simone Biles (and while you’re there, ask yourself whether you can relate to the trauma of sexual abuse or the complications of race), thus it makes no sense to engage in hypotheticals about what you would have done. Those hypotheticals are meaningless, because you simply can’t know how she feels. There are only a few people in the world who can.
In simpler terms, take the uncertainty of the moment and choose to believe her, and to wish her comfort and recovery. Instead of taking the view that winning gold medals in the individual events will prove that she bailed on her teammates when they needed her, root for her to find enough peace in the next two days to leave Tokyo with the success that her talent deserves.
It’s okay, I think, to feel conflicted about what we just saw in the team finals. Nobody should be punished for their thoughts, especially those thoughts which come instinctively. If you saw Biles drop out, learned her reasons, and thought, “this is outrageous!” I personally don’t think it makes you a bad person. The critical moments come afterward, and in those moments I do think it’s better and wiser to process the larger context, admit there’s a lot you don’t know and won’t ever experience, and then make the leap to empathizing with someone whose life is very different from your own.
What I say next is the definition of trying to close the barn door after the horse ran out, and it might be hypocritical or ironic considering I’m arriving at the end of a 1,000-word essay, but I’ll say it anyway: The way to talk about Simone Biles is to hold off on saying anything definitive, anything judgmental, until you feel you have a firm grasp on the larger context. And I believe that when you take the time to seek out that broader perspective, you’ll inevitably arrive at the conclusion that there’s too much that remains elusive, unclear, and unknowable to make any firm pronunciations. When you come to that epiphany, things get a whole lot easier because there’s only one thing worth saying about Simone Biles: I wish you well.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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